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Yellowstone County commissioners decide against jail needs assessment with city

By David Jay,


Update 11 a.m., May 31:

After the story ran, Commissioner Don Jones, R-Yellowstone County, contacted Q2 for a clarification.

Jones said he did not agree with or sign the letter.

He said he favors doing a jail assessment with the city.

Meanwhile, Billings Mayor Bill Cole left a voice mail message, stating he will make a recommendation to the City Council to renew the offer and focus on the areas the commissioners identified in the letter.

Cole said those concerns include moving trials along, the number of beds taken up by federal prisoners and by Montana Department Of Corrections prisoners.

“The important thing is that the problem of jail overcrowding be solved and not be allowed to languish,” Cole said. “Something is better than nothing and the issues identified by the county commissioners are important to address. We never intended that a study be limited to only expanding the jail. This needs to be an all the above approach.”

(first report) BILLINGS - Yellowstone County commissioners sent a letter Tuesday in response to the Billings City Council wanting to do a needs assessment on how many beds are needed in jail and the types of detention.

The city sees an immediate need for a detention facility, while the county wants to look at the entire judicial system.

There's no disagreement that the jail is full and the judicial system is overtaxed with cases.

"All of us are interested in crime," said Commissioner John Ostlund. "Crime is certainly a big, growing problem in our community."

Commissioners approved a letter denying a request from the City Council to conduct a needs assessment study for a new jail.

Ostlund agrees that more jail spaces may be needed, but he says it's just one part of the solution, which involves getting inmates more quickly through the judicial system.

"This request to expand the jail or look at jail expansion is just kind of one spoke in a bicycle wheel," said Ostlund.

In the letter to the City Council, commissioners expressed concerns about the potential costs of a new or expanded jail.

Ostliund said the county has a $7 million debt left to pay on a $19 million detention facility expansion in 2018.

"The federal inmates provide the revenue to pay for the jail expansion," Ostlund said. "Rather than go out to the voters and ask for that debt, we need to honor that commitment."

"We know that no matter what, we're going to need a jail expansion," said City Councilwoman Jennifer Owen. "I think we could do both things together."

Owen doesn't disagree that it's a complex issue.

"I understand where they're coming from, but it's disappointing nonetheless," Owen said. "We really do need urgency in leadership at all levels to address the crime problem that is happening here in Billings and Yellowstone County."

While the needs assessment is on hold, the city is moving forward with its own study looking at the municipal court system and its effects on the jail.

It is also asking the county to examine its courts too.

"We can look to make our system more efficient and analyze how many more beds we need," Owen said.

"They asked that we join them, and we said we'll certainly take a look at it," Ostlund said. "But I want to ensure that it's comprehensive enough that it looks at every aspect of the process."

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